An image. A single page of words. The story of a life. Conversations and characters from the road. The listening side of journalism.
Met Molly on the skin track up Big Mountain this morning. We chatted briefly—she’s a long-time local (30 years!)—talked about the snow and the uphill community. Was about to continue up when I asked if I could take her portrait—I love capturing locals in their element. Really glad I did. We ended up chatting the rest of the way to the summit and turns out she’s something of a climbing legend. She and Barb Eastman claimed the first all-women’s team ascent of the Nose on El Cap in 1977; a few years before, she was part of the first all-women’s team up the Diamond on Longs Peak. Forty years later she’s still cruising uphill out here in Whitefish (and I’m positive she ripped down the mountain faster than I did). When we parted ways she told me our conversation carried her up the last steep part of the ascent; I think her story will carry me a lot further. Hope she’s still out here shredding when I have kids—she’s the kind of strong role model I’d like my daughter to meet one day.
If you’ve surfed between The Hook and Pleasure Point, you’ve probably seen Mike. He’s there religiously, usually Tecaté in hand (or bag, as it were), sun up till sun down. He keeps to himself unless approached, then he’s a real chatterbox. He surfed for decades here and there, up and down the coast; he’s driven to breaks in Baja and Central America, scoring waves at famed spots when they were relative unknowns—showed me a bunch in the surf travel magazines he carries around. He doesn’t drive anymore though—he’s blind in his left eye. Got punched, knuckle to the eye, something about a girl. He’s been homeless for four years, chuckles about how he’s gotten pretty good at it, told me last night got real cold. Told me his socks were just about finished—gave him a woolen pair of mine, seemed to cheer him up. He also told me about when his van got towed, how that sent him to the streets because, in impound, an extra hundred dollars a day is basically a death sentence—couldn’t procure it quickly enough before it got out of hand. He seemed less bummed about losing the van, more bummed about thousands of photos that were inside—film, slides and all his belongings were auctioned off anonymously, disappeared with the van, as best he knows. We watched the surf for a bit, but it was a flat morning. He’s one of those guys who’s not just a hot meal and a pair of socks away from turning it around—one of thousands in Santa Cruz. He cracks another beer, pours it into an old orange juice bottle. It’s eight o’clock in the morning. He‘s an alcoholic. Says some off-kilter things. Generally an amiable guy. Lot of locals here wouldn’t bother to start a conversation with me, I’m an outsider. He told me his life story. Most of Santa Cruz doesn’t know he exists; if they do, they act like they don’t. We seem to share that in common. Saw him the other day at his usual standby, pouring another beer into a nondescript bottle. Called his name before I walked down the stairs to surf. Looked up and threw me a Shaka; I smirked and did the same. He watches, he knows I’m terrible. Doesn’t matter. It’s nice when someone knows your name.
Picked up a used truck topper on Craigslist off Highway 93 near the Bitterroots a few days back. If you’ve ever picked up anything from Craigslist, you know you meet some interesting characters. As I pulled into Marty’s place and saw the severed head of a buck resting on his truck beside a burnt orange ‘66 Chevelle SS, I knew I was in for something unique.
Marty came out in his duck coveralls sporting a patchy handlebar looking like a biker thug who’d found God in the mountains. Turns out, that’s pretty close. He raced a ‘69 Camaro and old-school Harleys, holding track records on rural Minnesota speedways, briefly claiming the land-speed record drag-racing his bike. He was notorious for bar fighting, used to own a pair of bladed brass knuckles, did a stint in the Marines and then found a new source of adrenaline in big-game guiding and wildland firefighting out west.
He‘s a cheery guy, stoked to show me old vehicles he restored, including a gem of a tour bus, complete with the interior of a classic 1970’s Boeing 747. Didn’t run when he bought it, learned he couldn’t tow it so he fixed it up till he could drive home. Runs like a deer, now.
Such an adventurous life hasn’t come without tumult, however. He told me he’s lost a lot of friends: he’s the only one left of a six-man felling team of wildland firefighters—his wife told him he ought to take that as a sign; he spoke about a pair of buddies drowned in their youth while running the American River in canoes filled with tractor inner tubes (farm boys and swift water don’t mix, he says); last Christmas he lost a friend to suicide.
He’s not somber though, nearly placid, actually; he’s been through a lot, seen more, seems to just accept what life throws at him—good, bad or otherwise. A little outspoken, not particularly politically correct, lot of people out here aren’t. But he’s always down to lend a hand, a story or local knowledge to those who are willing to put in the time to reveal a bit of themselves. We shared a beer after switching the topper over and I learned all of this. It doesn’t take much; a lot of people, perhaps most, just want to share their story. All you have to do is listen.
Actor, veteran, friend. All around good guy. By the time I met @jamesbane at USC, he had already completed multiple tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps. He was in his thirties, finishing up a MFA in Theatre and, like most of us who joined the crew team, knew very little about competitive rowing. You may recognize him from roles in NCIS or from T-Mobile’s “Hats Off” ad that aired during the MLB Postseason. We knew him as the kind of “fun uncle” of the crew who could out row an entire side of the boat. All joking aside though, Bane is one of the most genuine people I’ve met, something that feels increasingly rare in Hollywood and media. Talented, loyal and down to earth, hope to see him in the mountains one of these days.
The guy represents the quintessential essence of the working man. I have a tremendous respect for hard labor, to the point I romanticize it. (It’s my preferred means of supplementing photography.) I pity sheltered friends that have never gotten dirt under their nails, coughed up dust in a hay field or stood boot-deep in the mud. They’ve developed a stigma about blue collar work—some may even feel it’s beneath them. That notion, quite bluntly, comes from a life of privilege and an unwavering ignorance of what got you there in the first place. I take tremendous pride in completing a task that took two calloused hands to finish—when Ron finished work on my truck yesterday, you could see the same pride in his eyes, too.
John is a professor of English Literature, national leader in conservation, and a true “van-lifer” (this is his third VW Westy). We met in Bears Ears some years back, and, if you’ve been following the news, you know the national monument’s situation has only grown more precarious. We enjoyed several hours of thought-provoking conversation; however, I was most fascinated that a professor of literature and I could agree on the same favorite book. It wasn’t Hemingway nor was it Thoreau nor Thompson—it was a book we’d both read at a younger age, but a book intended for all ages, with a message for all humanity:
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”